Is your preschooler a fussy eater? Are they happy to eat and explore food at nursery but not at home? We ask the experts from Tiger Childcare exactly what’s going on, and what we can do about it as parents.

Is my child a fussy eater?

The age-old question exists, why do our children behave differently for different people or in different environments? The saying ‘street angel, house devil’ can come to mind. The most worrying of these behavioural differences can be around food. Why is it that my child seems to eat an array of exotic foods that exist on most nursery menus nowadays and yet refuses to eat once they return home?

What am I doing wrong at home?

As is our job as parents we generally blame ourselves. What is it I am doing differently or wrong? The good news is you are not to blame. With a little bit of understanding into how young children behave and think, and a few tweaks to our own behaviour you can alleviate the stress around eating and make mealtimes enjoyable and establish eating habits and behaviours which can benefit your child into the future.

Sociability and fussy eaters

Sociability: At Nursery, eating is a social event. Time is taken to prepare with handwashing, setting the table and then eating itself is part of a group activity, often with the childcare professionals joining in themselves. Children like to copy their peers and so often they will be happier to eat in the company of others.

Try making sure that mealtimes at home mimic this. Set a mealtime routine of washing hands preparing and eating together. This will give your child notice that mealtime is coming as well as having a relaxed fun environment for eating, where it’s not all focused on them, but part of a shared experience. By joining in mealtimes, yourself you are also setting a good example for your child.

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Offer a variety of food

Variety: Children need a mixed array of foods and should have a balanced diet that includes all food groups. This causes great anxiety to parents especially with a fussy eater.

The body doesn’t care if their daily requirements come from certain foods in a specific food group, as long as the dietary requirements are met daily. To use this to your advantage pick up on likes and dislikes. i.e., if your child only likes certain proteins and vegetables run with this, and only introduce new foods slowly when they become open to it.

It is much better to let your child have the chicken, broccoli and pasta they like rather than fighting with them that it is green beans, fish and rice. The body doesn’t mind as long as the nutrition is the same.

Be careful of timing when it comes to mealtimes

Timing: Watch the timing of meals. Children do not want to eat when they are too tired, and so moving mealtime to a time when your child is more enthusiastic may be important to them.

Behaviour and reaction

Agents of action: from about 6 months children begin to understand that they are agents of action. They understand that their behaviour can impact the reactions of others and the world around them. It is good to understand this in the context that children can pick up on your stresses and how in fact to push your buttons for attention, and so it is important that your child doesn’t pick up on your anxiety around mealtimes. It is also important not to give a child too much negative attention around the behaviour of not eating, as sometimes children will like any attention even if it is negative. So, try to stay calm and ignore the refusals of food.

Most of our anxiety around refusal comes from worrying if a child is eating enough and being nourished. A child only needs one good varied wholesome meal a day and so unless completely refusing, one big nutritious meal or a number of small meals will see your child through.

Positive praise and encouragement for even trying is much more beneficial. Ignore the refusals and celebrate the tries.

The importance of taste

Taste: Some children are fussier than others. And that’s what’s worth remembering when it comes to a fussy eater. Taste development might be something that comes easy to some children, while it may be much more difficult for others. There can be for a variety of reasons for this, including sensory development. Children of a young age like to explore the world with their senses and touch, smell and taste will be important here.

Allow your child to explore the food with their hands if they wish. Don’t worry about the mess.  It has been shown that children may need to taste a food from 12-30 times in order to become familiar with it. Familiarity with food does not come just from taste but from texture, touch and smell.

When it comes to food, give your child a choice

Choice: Children of even a young age love choice. Again, as agents of action they want to be able to have power in situations. Allow them choice. If they do not want one option offer another alternative. It is important however to stay away from snacks. If they want to choose not to eat that’s ok, the food options can be offered again at a later time. Giving snacks will mean the child will not be hungry later when offered.

Take the stress out of eating

Make food fun and meaningful: Try to take the stress out of food, this is key for a fussy eater. This will come with your ability to not get caught up in the problem. Make food familiar and fun. When your child becomes a little older allow them to help pick foods in the supermarket on your list like a treasure hunt. Allow them to help with preparation and cooking. Play tasting games. Allowing food to be a meaningful fun part of life will mean your child becomes more familiar with it.

Once the stress is taken out of eating it should become less of a battle. Remember every child is different and so all development happens differently. If you are worried about your child’s eating habits, ask the support of your nursery key worker who may be able to share information of what works in the setting. You can also get helpful tips here: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/baby/weaning-and-feeding/fussy-eaters/.

Article by Karen Clince, founder of Tigers Childcare

About Tigers Childcare

Tigers Childcare provides high quality early education and care for children age 4 months to 13 years.

We understand the importance of these early years in a child’s life. We provide high-quality environments, interactions and experiences that help each child reach their own potential. Your child’s entry into our programme marks a wonderful journey for both you and your child. Although this may be your child’s first experience of group learning, we see each child as an individual and their journey as unique.

Tigers Childcare has a new site in the heart of London. Elephant Park is their flagship location and caters for children from birth to 6 years’ old.

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